iggy azalea was right: music writing has a man problem;

My, aren’t we music critics a bunch of sensitive little flowers. We (well, some of us) are employed to take an artist’s creative output and subject it to our judgement, often taking it apart and coming to conclusions about that person’s joy or their pain or their heartbreak in the process. We assign points or stars or percentages in the space of 100 or 500 words about something that took months or years to create and then we go about our business, perhaps with our fingers crossed for a retweet. And yet, every time an artist exercises a right of reply, we stamp our feet and cry like babies.

Last month, rapper Iggy Azalea released her much-anticipated debut album. The critical consensus on The New Classic was that it wasn’t as great as some of its parts (disclaimer: that’s certainly the conclusion that I came to in my own review for The Arts Desk). Lorde – who, sidebar, just keeps proving that she is one of the most switched-on women in the whole of the music industry – called out fashion/lifestyle mag Complex one one of these reviews in a short post on her Tumblr, juxtaposing it with a recent cover shoot Azalea did for the same magazine. “Bugs me,” she wrote, “how publications like Complex will profile interesting artists in order to sell copies/get clicks and then shit on their records.” Azalea chimed in on Twitter; Complex promptly dialled 999 for the wah-mbulance which delivered in the form of the above-linked editorial by an associate editor for the mag, Insanul Ahmed.

Now Ahmed’s response is not altogether unreasonable, and in fact I’d go as far to say I’d agree with most of it. He’s right that the profiler and the critic have different functions, and he neatly skewers the suggestion made by both artists that free tickets, records or access somehow entitles you to a good review (I’d have gone even further and pointed out that in many cases that, and the ‘prestige’ of a byline, is the only recompense the writer is going to get). But that’s because it’s easy to take the moral high ground when you miss the fucking point, and the point in this case was the stuff Azalea tweeted that he seemed to miss entirely.

Surely you’d have to be oblivious not to agree that music journalism has a “pseudo intellectual middle aged men in sandals” problem. Partly this is simple economics: most of the folk who actually make a living from this shit got their jobs back when there were actually viable careers in music journalism – why else do you think every broadsheet has run a tedious Britpop retrospective lately – and the last time the NME tried to find a “hip young gunslinger” they inadvertently created the career of notorious transphobe Julie Burchill. I think it’s great for writers to take themselves out of their musical comfort zones, and enjoy the occasional clickbait humorous takedown of the latest pop hit as much as anybody, but it strikes me as such a wasted opportunity: say you’re wondering whether the new Little Mix album is worth checking out, and you like that sort of thing, are you really going to give a stuff if some middle-aged man who writes for the Telegraph thinks it’s shit?

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It’s not universal, of course: there are plenty of wonderful young female writers full of enthusiasm for the music that they cover out there: my perpetual ladycrush Nicola Meighan, Eve Barlow at the NME, the team behind The Girls Are and yes, us at TYCI. Almost as importantly, there are skilled editors – and I’ve had the privilege to work with a few – able to match the best writer to a certain kind of music, and willing to take a chance on new voices. I think there are benefits, too, to the fact that so few of us get to make a living as full-time music writers anymore: it means that we never get to the point where this stuff is just a job. I’ve had the misfortune to sit with the critics on a fair few occasions when I’ve been working at shows and I’m sorry – if you can watch Katy Perry, dressed in a pink leopard-print cat suit with matching ears perform a lounge cover of “Hot N Cold” without cracking a smile, it’s probably time to consider an alternative career.

So the shortlist for the Scottish Album of the Year (SAY) Award is due shortly, following the publication of the longlist last month; and for the second year running the lack of women on the shortlist was a bit of a talking point on the TYCI radio show. I was asked to nominate five eligible albums again along with 99 other Scottish music types and, full disclosure, picked three that would fit our loose TYCI criteria: one female, one female-fronted, one half-female. Two of those made the longlist. Not a chance am I going to suggest that one of what is really a pretty strong list doesn’t deserve to be on there for the sake of positive discrimination (although I’m yet to figure out what Boards of Canada are actually for) there were certainly, as Halina and Amanda said, some great releases that missed out. I think, with its relatively diverse pool of nominators and judges, the SAY Award does actually try to get the balance right, so perhaps the problem goes deeper – a lack of role models at all levels of the music industry, not just in successful bands but peppered throughout as writers, promoters and musicians at a grass roots level.

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Something that Amanda Wilson, the only woman to edit the Sydney Morning Herald in its 180-year history, said about the importance of role models of all levels in a Guardian op-ed this week rings true for me here:

I recall the dismay of one journalist whom I’d asked to take on more responsibility, thinking she would be pleased by my encouragement. She said she could never do what I had done, working full time in senior jobs while raising a family, because she was not as tough as I was.

Her comment brought home forcefully to me something I’d not previously given much thought to: the fact that for working mothers one size does not fit all. They need to look up and see many more than one woman in the senior ranks so they can find a role model that suits them better.

Substitute “working mothers” for my own particular handicaps to ambition, whether as part of my day job in the legal profession and my work in the music industry, and I can see exactly where she’s coming from.

Anyway. If you want more of this chat, Halina and I will be on Subcity Radio for TYCI tonight, 5pm-7pm. You can listen online, and get involved via Twitter while we’re on the air.

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  • > “I’m yet to figure out what Boards of Canada are actually for”

    IT’S A DRUGS THING YOU WOULDN’T UNDERSTAND

  • PS. Love this, agree on all other counts.

    • SURELY you know when I’m trolling by now 😉